I’ll write more later. I have a few things to do. (Funny way to start a post, no?)
But I am moved to write right now as well.
The very best technical concept that I got out of life as an academic is Lyotard’s, that of the differend.
Stick with me here because I’m gonna take this in a very non-technical direction. But it’s a useful concept. In layman’s terms, the differend is a kind of insurmountable gap in communication. It is relevant to the situation in which two very genuine parties may be trying to communicate, but simply can not do it. It may be a matter of language. It may be a matter of gesture. It may be a matter of habits of thought that are beneath language and gesture.
© Aron Hsiao / 2008
But that gap, between one and another, that gap of non-communicability is called the differend. It comes to us in conventional wisdom as the idea that sometimes translation simply can’t be achieved. Both sides can work toward communication, can engage in translation using better or worse technique, may even imagine that they have both understood one another, and yet in fact they haven’t.
This isn’t a universal condition; it doesn’t occur in all exchanges or between all actors. But Lyotard points to the fact that it can exist, that there are some things that simply can’t be “said” between two people in the way in which we imagine “saying” (i.e. with simplicity and understanding and clear commensurability of cognition) to work.
It is the “between two people” part that matters.* It’s not that “there are some things that can’t be said,” period. It’s that there are some people that cannot intelligibly communicate certain ideas with one another, with or without translation. The individual universes of thought and feeling that they inhabit do not overlap enough about a particular concept or idea for any translation, of any quality, or of any volume, to be possible. Translation depends on the premise that two people share enough that you can find words in one universe to represent the same things in the other universe. This doesn’t work if there is nothing similar in the other person’s universe to refer to.
The differend is a gap between the communicative universes inhabited by the people that are attempting to communicate.
* Okay, so I’m oversimplifying here, he actually talked of the incommensurability of constellations of meaning in two disparate language games, but for the lay-account, in practical everyday life, this most often comes to us as a difference between two people steeped in different language games, so I feel as though I can get away with this. Minor interlude complete.
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Apropos of this (here’s where I take the turn), I am, and have always been, a deeply spiritual person.
And some chunk of the people that know me well will say that I am the most spiritual person that they know. Sometimes it is wonderful to be wired this way, and sometimes it is a serious inconvenience in life. But it is what it is. I live and have always lived in a world of signs and wonders and geologic time, not in a world of simple, concrete facts and highly objective UTC.
© Aron Hsiao / 2003
But there are other people that know me well that have always believed that I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body. That I am the most rationalistic, unimaginative, repressed person they’ve met.
How to square this circle? I put it down to the differend.
There is an incommensurability of thought and language about the world and the magic in it, for myself and for some others, that is difficult to overcome. When I tell someone that the blue light of dusk falling between slats in the window blinds is my prayer, some take me to be demeaning prayer, and their own relationship with it. After all, I’ve just compared it to window blinds. I am clearly making fun of them or being dismissive &c.
What they don’t see and I often think they can’t believe is that I see that light, that dusk, in its eternal cycle, in the dying of a day, the rotation of a celestial body, and the window—its deep objective being as a thing of both separation (demarkation) and unity (flow—of light, of air—plus merging, openness, light, sight), and I see the two operating together, and it takes my breath away and I am moved to tears and I see God and feel connected to heaven and I descend into deep thoughts, murmurings, repetitions, and reflections inside myself, sometimes for hours.
Windows, rivers, ferris wheels, carousels, snowstorms, analog clocks, polished optics, road trips… All of these things I’ve called my prayers. Some people that know me understand that these are, in fact, my prayers, and that in them I experience the divine and aspire and at the same time release myself to the extent that I’m able to be a part of them.
For the others—I don’t know that it will ever make sense.
The same thing goes for association. For me, spirituality is necessarily experienced only in solitude. For others, it can only be experienced in association, in the company of others. Even in the midst of a congregation, the ineffable for me has always been an inner experience, something different from and distant from human interaction.
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I post this because like everyone, I wish to be understood, especially by those that I know. Of course, that’s why I post everything I post. That’s why we say everything we say.
And of course, one immediate response to this is to say, “but you just said you prefer to be alone!”
That, again, in the face of all of this, is the result of the differend. Because of course in my own soul, I’ve said and felt nothing of the sort.
— § —
Life is complicated. And simple. The being part is simple. What is, is. The desire part is complicated. What isn’t, isn’t for an infinite variety of reasons, some addressable, some not.